Left Brain, Right Brain and the Ego

Today I listened to the interviews Oprah did with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist (brain specialist) who suffered a massive stroke in her left hemisphere in her late 30s, consequently experiencing a life-changing reconnection to a world we often leave behind once we pass toddlerhood and acquire language.  Dr. Bolte Taylor lost the function of her left brain, thereby losing her language and, by extension, her identity.  Relying on her right brain, she had to construct a new identity for herself. It took her almost ten years to regain full function of her left brain, but she has learned to balance the functions of the two hemispheres in order to create a new life for herself that is less judgmental and linear, and more creative and socially connected.

These kinds of stories are fascinating to me, and I wonder if there are insights I can use in dealing with my most challenging problems.  For example, I know that eating raw foods would change my life for the better- I've experienced it before. So why do I keep returning to my old eating habits and endangering my health?  Eckhart Tolle's writings and interviews are enlightening, as are my Buddhist readings, in that they talk about the Ego and its need to maintain an identity -and dominance -in our life.  Apparently it's my ego that identifies with food and which so fiercely demands that I go back to those damned chicken wings over and over again. Its my ego that overwhelms me with thoughts of anxiety and food-related remedies, and which keeps me from being mindfully present.  Tolle came to his awareness of the ego and the need to "live in the now" through a personal crisis which allowed him to see two selves, one of which is obsessed with problems and which constantly "chatters," and another which observes and experiences without judgment. 

Bolte Taylor, due to her stroke, came to the same awareness, but because she is a brain specialist she was able to understand the experience physiologically as well as spiritually.  Bolte Taylor explains that the left hemisphere is the most highly developed part of our brain in our society, which values logical, linear, sequential thinking and other left-brain tasks.  Its other abilities include the manipulation of numbers, the interpretation and performing of languages, the creation of boundaries and the understanding of the body's position in space. It also includes an understanding of concepts such as familial relationships and the meaning of "yes" and "no." Mental phenomena such as pride, embarrassment and judgment are other left-brained tasks, as is conceptualizing the past and future- and connecting those to our present. Bolte Taylor says that our ability to use language and to conceive of a past and a future all help us to form an identity; a series of stories about our past and our future plans. Our left brain therefore helps us to negotiate the external world and to create within that world.

The right brain has different tasks. It perceives through the senses, thinks visually. It can assess moods and the emotional content of language based on what we've been socialized to learn about speech-related behaviors such as vocal intonations.  It sees the big picture or the "context" in which events occur.  It acts as the witness or observer of events, and experiences emotions such as peace and gratitude. Because the right brain does not rely on language, it doesn't develop complex memories as the left brain does; it lives in the "now" without critical judgment. It allows the feeling of connectedness or "one-ness" with other entities in our universe.   The right brain allows us to connect to the world.

Bolte Taylor says its easy for any of us to get in touch with our right brains and to learn to quiet the analytical, judgmental and critical left-brain chatter that keeps us away from the present.  I wonder, though...  If it were that simple for us to stop the domination of our left brains, why don't we all "just do it"?  Why do we need life-altering experiences that give us glimpses of right-brain living before we have that "a-ha" moment? Why do so many people find themselves reading book after book, or going on retreats (or into therapy!) without figuring out how to have those experiences?  Maybe it is possible for each of us to learn to achieve a "cerebral balance" that will allow us to reach our full potential as joyful human beings, but I think it is unfair of those who have achieved it to claim that it is easy.

Bolte Taylor says that our society rewards left-brain thinking and trains us out of appreciating our right brain's functions.  When I read that, I thought about how I have worked so hard in my life to focus on left-brain skills even though I'm naturally more right-brained.  From childhood I have been artistic, imaginative, visual and intuitive.  Even my facility with languages, while supposedly a left-brained task, seems to stem more from my passion to be connected to people across cultures than anything else. Lord knows I am not a logical person.  I've always struggle with  numbers, sequential thinking, map-reading and other left-brain tasks. Maybe this mismatch is the reason I suffer from anxiety and turn so often to food for comfort.  Ha!  I wish the answer were that easy to come by.  But I do wonder if a better understanding of how I use my left and right brains would help me to gain control of my eating. At the very least I could use the concept as a metaphorical tool of some sort.

On the other hand, is that just me doing what I'm trained to do- analyze? Parse? Explain?  Might that be what's gotten me in trouble in the first place?


Dr. Bolte Taylor's presentation can be found here.


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  • 6/2/2008 4:16 AM Rawbin wrote:
    just getting around to reading the blogs. I'm blown away by this one! You're an amazing woman!
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  • 12/2/2008 6:43 PM Richard wrote:
    Incredible. Yah if the whole trick of Eckhart Tolle's enlightenment was simply just switching brain hemisphere's that would take a lot of magic away from 'enlightenment'. Im Right brained, left handed, and its funny Eckhart's philosophy's have been relatively easy for me to grasp.. I wonder if thats it.. just validate the right brain and call its perceptions enlightenment?
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  • 12/23/2008 12:52 PM MJ wrote:
    Wow, very interesting thoughts! I'd consider myself to be very much so right-brained in a lot of different areas, but as you mentioned, society and the norm seems to favor and reward left-brained characteristics in greater number. In any event, it's all great sit-around-the-table convo!
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